22 March 2010

Yin & yang

My time in the red centre was drawing to a close, but I still had a jam-packed day ahead of me.  There was only one trail that was left undone at Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park: Warlpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta.  I was secretly relieved that it was a short trail since my ankles, feet & toes had not yet fully recovered from the past two grueling days of hiking.

Since it was late morning, the high rock walls blocked all of the intense sunlight.  As soon as I stepped into the shadows I was cold.  Furthermore, the rock sides became more and more narrow which created a vortex for the winter wind.  I watched as puddles from the previous night were disturbed; their surfaces turbulent instead of glass smooth.  I put my hood over my head and cinched it tight. 
In addition to the dim light and chilly temperature, I was the only person in the gorge.  It was silent except for the howling wind.  No birds chirped; no visitors spoke.  It was a bit haunting, yet peaceful.  I half sat/half leaned against a boulder & felt miles away from myself.  I picked up a chunk of rock that I assumed broke off one of the two walls towering over me.  I tried to remember that once -- around the dawn of time -- the Warlpa Gorge was not a gorge, but a single solid rock.  How long had it taken for the Warlpa Gorge to be one of the few formations that remained above ground in the desert now?  How much water, harsh sun & wind battered this once monolith until it was carved into what I looked at now?  To me, the red rock in my palm was equivalent to catching a glimpse of ancient life.  If rocks could talk, I would have loved to hear its timeless story.
I wanted to soak up my last hours in the desert.  When I had my fill, I meandered back to the hire car just as other visitors arrived.... "they will not have the place to themselves" I thought greedily.  I lingered around the area & ate a late lunch.  The sun began its descent from the sky and I had a prime spot to witness the legend of Uluru, Kata Tjuta & the other monoliths in the desert:  the transformation to fiery red caused by our brightest star's last rays.  Let me tell you, it was hardly legend.  It was all real.
 I was the second to last person to leave the Sunset Viewing Area.  Even still, I was forced to pull off to the side of the road & capture Kata Tjuta's beautiful, burning silohuette on the horizon.  My last picture in the desert. 

14 March 2010

Feel the burn

Hiking The Valley Of The Winds backwards meant better views of the scenery and more uphill climbs.  When I arrived at the foot of the circuit's climax -- a massive, rocky mound -- my back was drenched in sweat.  I cannot recall a time I have ever been so wet with perspiration.
When I finally summited the hill, I plopped down on the nearest crag.  I was greeted by a gay couple from Sydney (originally from Poland) who witnessed my exhausting ascent.  They explained they rode from New South Wales on motorcycles.  The three of us reminisced about our respective homelands.  The couple highly recommended a natural hot spring (larger than a swimming pool) in between the park & Kulgarra (to the west) which, after my grueling hike, sounded so relaxing. 
I noticed some gorgeous birds & beautiful plant life on the return walk to my vehicle.  It turned out, even in the middle of the desert, life and color flourished -- although humans often were not able see it. 
The first thing I did when I arrived at the car was remove my boots.  No wonder I was in such anguish!  I had two horrible blisters on each of my big toes.  As usual, I was also sunburnt from being outside the majority of the day.  I returned to Yulara & had barely enough energy to get out of the car and shower. 
After my much-needed shower & a hearty dinner, I felt refreshed and awake.  I was excited for the Night Sky Show -- if you forgot, I signed up for it the previous night, but the show was cancelled due to the rain-- & to see the common (or in my case, not-so-well-known) constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. 

Once again, the outback's weather did not cooperate and the Night Sky Show was cancelled.  Although I planned to drive back to Alice Springs the following day, I had to make changes.  I was determined to study the stars!  The new itinerary was to attend the show and drive -- at least halfway -- to Curtin Springs in the late night.

10 March 2010

Blazing trails

It did not drizzle all night -- it poured!  At times the raindrops pelted the car's metal roof so hard it was difficult to get back to sleep.

When my alarm went off at 5:45am I peeled myself out of the toasty sleeping bag. My first night in Uluru I had to cover my face I was so cold.  Why was I sweating?  Still sheltered in the car's warmth I laced up my Columbias.  I prepared myself for the pre-dawn chill as I opened the car door.  Why was it humid outside?  Again, it was the coldest month of winter.  Why did it feel like an Ohio summer?

The clouds that harbored the raindrops of yesterday & yesternight also sealed in the warmth radiating from the red earth.  I couldn't believe the temperature difference!

Blurry-eyed, I turned onto the Lasseter Highway again.  This dark morning I was headed for The Olgas (their non-politically correct name).  A third of the way into the drive, I passed a road sign that stated it was only 200 kilometers to the state of Western Australia, or -- if I turned South & continued on the sole, unpaved road -- it would be less than an hour before I entered the state of South Australia.  Literally & figuratively I was in the red centre.

Since the national park did not open until 7am I had to hustle to get to the Sunrise Viewing Area in time.   From the platform I was also able to see Uluru's silohuette breaking up the flat horizon.  Before the sun even revealed itself, a bright fuschia glow spread outward from a point on the Earth's plane.  It reminded me of the mineral Tiger Iron (see photo below). The pink morphed into a larger light purple glow to the left of Uluru.  It was inexplicably awesome to watch the sun paint the sky.   I was one of the few people who hung around to see the sun's rays extend from the horizon to the domed tops of The Olgas.  From afar they were navy blue and magenta, not fiery red as advertised.
Onward to Kata Tjuta (the "T" is silent).  The Valley Of The Winds trail, which circumnavigated Kata Tjuta's many heads, was exhausting!  I started at 10am which made the majority of the excursion in the desert's midday heat.  It was, by far, the toughest trail at Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park!
Most people go awry -- myself included -- by not realizing the terrain is extremely rough.  I moved like a toddler in high heels walking along the edge of the Grand Canyon... every step was unstable and precarious.  To even reach The Valley Of The Winds circuit I had to cross a massive, sloped hill (around a 45 degree angle)!  I arrived at the circuit, and although I was at a national park dedicated to monoliths, the trail was not comprised of little pebbles.  In fact, I was stepping on disfigured boulders.  The trail's rocks were not as smoothly arranged as the paths at Uluru.  I slipped so many times over the jagged terrain, I probably twisted my ankle a dozen times.

At the entrance (or exit, depending on where I started) to The Valley Of The Winds, I rested for some brief water & shade before I began the 10 kms.  There was already a somewhat older gentleman at the lone picnic table who told me he was waiting for his nephew & his nephew's fiancee to finish hiking the trail.  He -- like the majority of Australians I encountered -- asked if I was from the U.S.A. or Canada  (the way Americans can differentiate/poke fun at Canadians due to subtle pronunciations, such is the same for Australians & New Zealanders a.k.a. Kiwis).  The guy said he liked (what he had seen of) The States, especially San Francisco.  Well, well, well!  The man had just said the magic words to a native Californian.
He inquired why I was so far from home & so alone.  Upon answering he stated how he admired my bravery for embarking on an epic, international journey sans companionship.  When I inquired about his background it turned out he was a miner from Coober Pedy, South Australia, who was in the process of retiring.  For income he planned to continue his lifelong hobby of inlaying crystalline -- not rock -- opals.  Well, well, well... I am an avid opal hoarder, especially because it is my birthstone & can have every color of the spectrum in it. 

Last, Mr. Miner described how the park had changed over the decades (he frequented Uluru/Kata Tjuta).  He let me in on a secret that I'm going to share with you.  95% of visitors turn right at the crossroad to The Valley Of The Winds because they are indicated, do not want to disturb the flow of walkers, and they hope to get the hardest climb out of the way first.  However, if you head left, the entire valley with its sweeping landscape opens up ahead of you (as opposed to missing it because your back is turned).  He confirmed I could head left because I was "still young" and afterward I concurred with him -- you should be cardiovascularly & muscularly fit since you will be enduring an exhausting, uphill climb over gnarly terrain at the end of 10 kilometers.  We said our goodbyes and bade each other best wishes.  Then, with renewed encouragement & ankles, I marched into The Valley Of The Winds.